Alumni Spotlight - Terry Wilcoxson

Following His Heart

By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist

Terry Wilcoxson has been providing premier aviation services at Paine Field for over 35 years. As general manager of Castle & Cooke Aviation, Terry is responsible for customer satisfaction, quality assurance, jet fuel delivery and managing the company's fuel trucks and fuel storage systems.

A graduate of Everett Community College's Aviation Maintenance Technology program, Terry also received business training at EvCC and served in the U.S. Navy for five years as an F-4 Phantom Plane Captain. Here, Terry tells us more about his background and why he loves being an ambassador for Snohomish County.

Are you originally from the Everett area?
I'm pretty much a product of Snohomish County. My family moved to this area from Southern California when I was in the eighth grade. I attended Mountlake Terrace High School and graduated in 1970. Upon graduation, I went to school at North Seattle Community College for one year, and then I joined the Navy.

When you were going to college at North Seattle Community, did you have any idea about what you ultimately wanted to do?
Well, I always knew I was going to end up in aviation because I used to hang out here at Paine Field. When I was going to high school, my dad was retired Navy and my parents used to shop at the commissary, so they would drop me off and I would wander around the air field, looking at airplanes and everything. I took my first airplane ride at Paine Field.

Was your dad a pilot?
No. He actually tried to discourage me from going into aviation.

I don't know. You know, there's a little bit of competition in the Navy between the engineering people and the aviation people.

So, I joined the Navy and immediately went into the aviation program and was simply fascinated by the whole thing, about flying airplanes on and off ships and things like that. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to an F-4 squadron and, of course, there was a war going on at that time, so we were really busy.

Where were you were trained and where did you go with your squadron?
My initial aviation training took place in Memphis, Tennessee. After I graduated, I was supposed to do jet engine mechanics. The training squadron was for replacement pilots for ocean-going, fleet squadrons, and they assigned me out on the flightline. I became what's called in the Navy a “flight captain,” but essentially, it's a crew chief for an airplane.

It was kind of neat because we got to travel to different ships, so I literally got to see pretty much every aircraft carrier the Navy had.

How many would that have been?
At that time, I probably visited at least eight carriers. I was in Oceana, Virginia, for about two years. Then, I requested a transfer out to the U.S.S. Midway, which was home ported in Japan. I stayed in that squadron for about two years.

Why did you request a transfer?
I just wanted to get out and see more. (Laughing)

We took part in the evacuation of Saigon right at the end of the Vietnam War; the Midway was a key ship in that. After the war, we visited lots of interesting places. We went to Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore. We actually did an air show for the Shah of Iran in about 1974. I had a really interesting Navy career.

It sounds like it. Where did EvCC fall into all this?
Well, I really didn't want to make the Navy my career. So, I got an early discharge from the Navy because I was accepted at EvCC to go to school.

Was there any kind of decision-making process to selecting EvCC or was it because it was close to home?
It was home. At the time, I was living in Mountlake Terrace and I always liked the idea of going to EvCC. Several of my friends from high school got football scholarships to EvCC; at that time, they had a football team. I went to school there for about a year, just taking general studies, getting those courses out of the way. And I got married about that time and needed a job.

The college had a student employment area with job postings on a board, and I saw a job posting to fuel airplanes. I thought, “Well, that's something I could do.” It was for a company called Fliteline Services. So, I applied and was hired, full-time.

I was going to school and working. With getting married and all, it just became too much for me to continue with school because I was working evenings and everything.

I got out of school at that point. I had taken a lot of accounting and business courses, which I was able to utilize working for Fliteline because it was a small, family-run company. I worked there and still had my VA benefits, so I decided to pursue some pilot training. I learned to fly out here at Paine Field and got my private, commercial instrument ratings.

How old were you then?
I was in my mid-20s. I also decided it would be kind of interesting to get an A&P license to become an aircraft mechanic. So I re-enrolled at EvCC in their maintenance technician training. It's a two-year program, so I did two years there while working full-time, raising a family and everything.

Why did school work for you the second time around?
I think, number one, I had a real interest and, number two, I got more involved in the whole student process. When I was there, I was nominated for a scholarship. I was the student rep for the advisory committee, and I was involved in a lot more things. And being married wasn't such a new thing to me anymore. I could concentrate on what I was doing. I had a son at that time, too.

After I graduated, I also assumed more responsibility in the Fliteline Services company. I was moving more into the management side of the company, primarily due to the business training I had received at EvCC.

How big was Fliteline?
Fliteline was actually this company (Castle & Cooke Aviation). It kind of evolved. At that time, it was a small, family-run company and basically, all we did was sell fuel. The owner was a man named Jim Wilkinson. I worked for him for over 30 years; he was a great mentor to me and huge reason for my success.

We grew that company, and in 2007, Fliteline Services was purchased by Castle & Cooke Aviation.

While I was working at Fliteline, I also got very interested in the fuel quality side of things. I built this little website called Clear and (a fuel quality term); it's not standing anymore. I put this little site together and it attracted some attention from airlines and things like that.

As a result, I got involved with a Paine Field firefighter and, together, we developed an aviation fuel and fire safety course that received FAA recognition. It was approved as a nationally-recognized course that people could attend to meet the FAR-139 requirement. That's just “aviation speak,” but it was kind of neat because we had people coming from all over the country to attend this course.

You talked about growing the business. It had a long time to grow in those intervening years. Other than doing the nationally-recognized course, were you diversifying in other ways?

Well, you know, we were always looking for different things. We were selling aviation charts at one point, we were doing rental cars. I like to tell people that we are sort of like a hotel. We offer concierge services to people who fly airplanes, as well as their passengers. So, when the airplanes come in here, we can provide hotel reservation services, rental car services, arrange for catering, all of that.

Is this a kind of “marina” for planes?
Yeah, that's a good analogy. What I tell my people when they are hired is this: we're ambassadors for Snohomish County. When people fly in here, you're the first people from Snohomish County they get a chance to meet. Some of these clients are pretty powerful people, they may be business leaders for major corporations, and it's important that we put a good face on ourselves and our company because they remember Snohomish County from their encounter with us.

Do you have a typical day, for example, a typical number of flights?
It just depends. We can have 20 airplanes come through or no airplanes at all.

Twenty airplanes in one day? Wow, that seems like a lot.
Yeah, we had a situation when President Obama was at Boeing Field. You know, the airspace gets restricted because of that, so all of that traffic comes up here. When President Obama was in Everett recently, we were fortunate because we took care of a lot of the details that went into that trip, also.

Do you consider that fun, or is it just a lot of work?
No, everything that we do here is fun. (Laughing)

That's nice to hear.
Well, that's why I've stayed working here for so long.

Obviously, going to EvCC's A&P school here at Paine Field, most people that graduate from that school end up in the maintenance world. While that certainly was something that I could do, one of the reasons I chose this path for a career is because I really like dealing with the people side of it more, and the training I received was invaluable to me.

When people have problems, I can recognize what needs to be done and say, “Okay, this is what we need to do to take care of this.” I can put the right people together and have a successful outcome to the situation. If I didn't have that training, I might not know what to do.

It sounds like the perfect job for you.
Oh, it is, it is!

When did you graduate from your second go at EvCC?
It would have been in the mid-80s. My first year, I was in the old school and I was in the first class that graduated from the new facility (across the street from Castle & Cooke).

Do you have any particularly memorable experiences from EvCC?
I took some accounting courses and there was an instructor, Mr. Buck, who opened my eyes to the whole, “This is the way businesses do it.” That training actually really helped me in my job today because I'm responsible for that type of thing. I'm not afraid of numbers and I understand the accounting process. I can look at a set of financials and make some sense out of it.

It sounds like you enjoyed your time at EvCC.
Oh, I loved it!

If you could think of one word that describes EvCC, is there anything that comes to mind?

What do you find rewarding about what you do?
I think the most rewarding part of this job is being able to help people. In business today, you hear a lot about customer service, what that means and everything. In this job, we're dealing with a very small group of people, for the most part, and we get to know these people. Being able to make an emotional attachment with them – so that we can offer the highest level of service possible – is what I find the most rewarding part of it.

How many people work at this location?
I have a staff of eight people right now.

What type of schedule do you keep?
It's pretty much 24/7. I've been called out here at two o'clock in the morning by the Coast Guard. They had a missing person out in Puget Sound, a boat problem and a search helicopter running low on fuel. So, they called me, and I came out to help them re-fuel.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a corporate jet transporting an organ transplant team. They were getting in at three o'clock in the morning. So, I came in and took the transplant team to Providence Hospital.

When you talked about what you tell your employees, is there a particular type of person that you look for, a particular personality type, background or both?
You know, it's kind of funny, because if you go to any business like this, all the people that work in these businesses, they're the same people. Basically, their names are different, but they're the same people. There's a certain personality type that gets drawn into this.

What is that type?
I don't know. I've spent the last 30-some-odd years trying to figure that out. (Laughs)

Basically, I think what it boils down to is this: The people that stay in this line of work do so because they like to help people. And they also have a strong interest in aviation.

So, they're service oriented?
Yeah. And they're able to make that emotional attachment. A lot of people can't do that. They don't want to do that because you almost have to open yourself up a bit, and a lot of people don't want to do that.

Are your customers mostly business people or do you get any celebrities?
Mostly business people. But, we do get to see people who do shows at the Comcast Arena and occasionally, we see people who come through here because this is a convenient airport if you're on your way to Alaska or something like that.

What do you find challenging about your work?
Just trying really hard to get everything done correctly. Ultimately, our best customer – the guy who probably has the best experience with us – is the guy whose car is waiting for him when he gets here, it's not pouring down rain on him – or if it is, hopefully, we have an umbrella out there to help him – and he gets in the car and drives off, has his meeting, comes back, is able to get on the plane, the catering is on board, everything's ready for him to go, and he doesn't even know we had anything to do with it. That's the best customer. (Laughing)

So, you're just behind the scenes, doing your job.
Uh-huh. If he has to get involved with me, there's usually something wrong.

I assume you have a select group of vendors that you use. Do you ever try anybody new?
Oh, yeah. All the time. Catering is a big, big thing, because people think, “Oh, wow, that's pretty cool,” but then you talk to catering companies and you say, “Well, I need it at five o'clock on Sunday morning,” and then, all of a sudden, it doesn't look quite as attractive. There are only a couple of companies in the Puget Sound area that specialize in aviation catering for business aircraft.

We had an aircraft that ordered catering and our customer service rep at the time failed to order it; she got sidetracked and she didn't place the order. The crew arrived to depart, and generally, if they want catering, we have it here at least an hour before departure. She came to me with tears in her eyes and said, “What are we going to do?”

This particular jet was a large jet and they were leaving to go back East and the food that they had ordered was primarily seafood dinners. When they come here, that's what people want.

So I called the caterer and they had everything we needed, but the one thing that we were missing was the time. Because there was a lot of traffic to get the food up here from Boeing Field, I ended up flying down there to get the catering, flying it back up here, and getting it on the airplane.

Sounds a bit stressful.
Yeah, but that's the level of service we need to be able to provide. You can't tell these guys, "Just swing by McDonald's and buy Big Macs."

You talked about visiting Paine Field as a kid. What was it about hanging out here, about airplanes in general, that you liked? Did it seem exciting; did you want to travel?
I think it was all of that. I really, really got interested in it when I was in fifth grade. I remember this like it was yesterday: I was in the library and I came across an issue of “Flying” magazine. I was looking at this thing and all of a sudden, it hit me that this was a really neat way to travel – private aircraft. I mean, the whole concept just kind of fascinated me.

I used to bug my dad to go out to the airport and hang out. My dad was never really interested in airplanes. But he'd take me out to the air field to hang out. I remember my mom and dad drove me out here like they always did on a Saturday when they went to the commissary. My dad parked the car and said, “Let's go see if we can go on an airplane ride.” I was like, “You've got to be kidding me.” We went on a scenic flight and that was the most amazing thing ever. It was the very first time I'd ever been on an airplane. So, we flew around the Everett area and came back. From then on, I was hooked.

So, from a really early age, you knew that you would be involved with aviation.
It sounds cliché, but when I was in high school, I got my first car and Paine Field was the first place I came with the car. I knew when I was in high school that someday I would work here. I just knew that this was where I was going to end up.

I haven't met very many people who, at that age, knew what they wanted to do.
Yeah, it was weird. Today, I drive around the airport and it's changed so much. It's also interesting that I've seen three generations of pilot population come through here. The guys who were 30 and 40 years old when I first came out here have retired from flying now.

Would you have done anything differently?
No. This has been a good job for me. What I'm trying to do now is involve as many young people as I can so that they can take the whole thing over. It's easy to find a lot of people who have experience, but I find it more exciting to take somebody who's like my customer service rep. She was a Head Start student and graduated from the University of Washington, about 20 years old now. No aviation experience at all, but she gets it. I don't know if she'll stay in it, but at least she has gained some understanding of customer service and what it's all about. Everybody wants Wal-Mart prices, but we lose out on the customer service experience.

Another thing I find rewarding is the fact that a lot of the people that have worked for me come back and see me all the time. I really appreciate that.

That says a lot about how they value their relationship with you. It sounds like you enjoy helping your employees develop.
Yeah, I like to see people take more responsibility and run with it. I like to tell people, “If it's not your job, it may be your opportunity.” Some people hear that and look at you like, “What's that mean?” Some people get it.

Do you have any words of advice for students currently attending EvCC?
The obvious one is, "Follow your heart." Like I said, my dad was never an aviation guy. It's kind of interesting: I've been able to do what I wanted to do and, at the end of the day, I just did it my way.

I think it's important to follow your heart. If you're lucky enough to do what you want to do and it becomes part of your lifestyle, I think your life is a lot easier.

What do you think is the difference between people who are following their hearts and they don't become successful – like the “starving artist” types – and the person who is successful? Did you do something key that helped you be successful in the process of following your heart?
I really think that if you're going to go down that road, you're going to have to do something that somehow puts you ahead of everybody else a little bit. For me, that little website that I put together got me some attention and I think that 's the biggest thing. It takes a little bit more than saying, “This is what I want to do.” It's hard work.

As you were talking about the website and the things that you did, you obviously weren't just resting on your laurels; you had to put in a lot of time.
Yeah, you've got to go outside of your job almost and make people see you a little bit.

Do you remember what kind of hours you were working back in those days?
I did my website on my kitchen table outside of working hours; this was back before the internet. I had a dial-up modem. It would be two o'clock in the morning, I was working on this thing and I'd go to upload it – I was just praying that I wouldn't lose the connection, you know.

If you're going to follow your heart, you're going to have to give something up – like sleep. It can be a difficult process.

Last question: what were your keys to success?
One of the real keys is to let other people do it for you. We deal with all these other vendors and have a great relationship with them. Your employees and everybody – just maintain good relationships with people.